When Tony Dungy was asked recently to make a case for Peyton Manning as the league's most valuable player, the Indianapolis coach instead declared his vote for Steelers linebacker James Harrison.
"He's been the most dominant player on the best defense in football," Dungy said recently on Sirius NFL radio.
"He's like a Randy Moss or Dwight Freeney. You have to game-plan for him in terms of how you're going to block him in the passing game. So he puts that on the table even before the game starts, and then he does other things. He drops in pass coverage. He covers tight ends. They move him around, and he's not just a one-dimensional rusher," he added.
The league MVP has yet to be determined, but Harrison chalked up a big honor yesterday-- being voted by his teammates as the most valuable player of a division champion that is seeded No. 2 in the AFC playoffs. He also won it last year, becoming the first playing since linebacker Levon Kirkland (1998-99) to win the award outright in consecutive years. Hines Ward shared the award in 2002 and won it in '03.
"It's a tremendous honor, just like it was last year," said Harrison, who said he believed he had a better year this year than last.
And what would it mean to be named the top defensive player in the league?
"The Super Bowl would mean everything on top of all that," Harrison said.
He credited his offseason work and a better understanding of the defense with his improvement. But he was quick to credit his teammates and the mastermind of coach Dick LeBeau.
"Everything I do is because of him. If he doesn't call the defense that puts me in a position to make plays, I wouldn't be talking to you now," Harrison said.
Already selected to his second consecutive Pro Bowl, Harrison has had a monster season. Against the Titans Sunday, his sack of Kerry Collins in the third quarter gave him 16 for the season, breaking the team's single-season sack record held previously by Mike Merriweather. The NFL leader in forced fumbles with seven, he also has 100 tackles for the first time in his career. A dozen of those tackles have come on special teams, because, in addition to his other duties, Harrison still charges down the field on kicks.
Not bad for an undrafted free agent out of Kent State who was released several times and was once the property of the Baltimore Ravens in 2004. After the Ravens released him, he signed again with the Steelers when Clark Haggans was injured in training camp. Now, he is one of the most-feared linebackers in the league, and a player held in highest regard by his teammates.
"This place is rich in linebacker tradition and getting to the quarterback. A lot of great players came be fore him, and he broke a record that stood for a lot of years," said defensive end Brett Keisel.
"The man works his [tail] off every day, not only on the field but in weight room and in studying film. I just can't say enough about how much he means to this team and the kind of year he's had," he added.
Some of Harrison's biggest moments have come against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers final regular-season opponent Sunday. That become more noteworthy because he grew up in Akron.
His first career start came against Cleveland in 2004 because Joey Porter was ejected for fighting before the game. In that game, he registered his first career sack and made six tackles.
Then, in the Super Bowl season of 2005, during a 41-0 win against the Browns, he bodyslammed an inebriated Cleveland fan who made the mistake of running onto the field.
He became a starter last season after the decision was made to part ways with Porter, now with the Miami Dolphins.
NFL analyst Phil Simms is also among those who believe Harrison should get some votes for the league MVP award.
"He can do it all," Simms said. "I'll tell you what. You've got all these offensive plays designed where you're going to do this and this. Well, they all go out the window because, if you don't double-team him, if you don't make special provisions to stop him, he's going to win the game. He can beat tackles. He can beat tight ends. He can cover. He's an unbelievable tackler. He is a special player."
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org First Published December 25, 2008 5:00 AM